The Simmering Pottage: Air Sea Battle and QDR 2014

GW Strike Group

 The Air Sea Battle (ASB) debate continues to simmer in a variety of forums.  Over at the National Interest Sean Miski expounds on his theory of how a war with China might be won via blockading.  Young Marine officers challenge the need for the concept at the U.S. Naval Institute’s blog.  RAND has issued an interesting counter that emphasizes “far blockades” with land-based anti-ship missiles.  Our friends at the Small Wars Journal have recently posted an interview with an ASB proponent, Elbridge Colby of the Center for Naval Analyses.  I recently attended a lively debate between Mr. Colby and Dr. T.X. Hammes of the National Defense University, a critic of ASB.  Both sides gave as good as they got.

I would like to frame the debate with a few propositions that I’d like to throw into the soup kettle of the conceptual “pottage” surrounding this issue.  I think these have particular relevance for the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is wrapping up this month.  Hopefully, these details will also be relevant to the National Defense Panel, which has the responsibility of taking an independent view of our security posture and defense budget.  These points may also be relevant to members of Congress who will have to allocate increasingly scarce resources to competing demands.

    • Air Sea Battle is designed to address a valid, well-defined and real operational challenge with huge strategic implications.  Like most concepts, it will be tested and refined over time.


    • Air Sea Battle, if successful in creating the requisite operational capabilities, will be a necessary precondition for sustained U.S. forward presence and expeditionary power projection where advanced anti-access networks exist.  Conversely, if ASB does not gain adequate traction and advance our capabilities, U.S. influence and ability to maintain our presence will be reduced in Asia, or perhaps in the Persian Gulf.  For this reason, the Joint community—especially the Army and the Marine Corps—should support the Air Sea Battle concept.  More specifically, they should support development of cost-effective solutions to reducing adversary anti-access challenges.  Policymakers should explore how tactical aviation and strike elements of iterations of the concept contribute to this end.


    • ASB is not a strategy nor was it designed to be an uber solution to all of our pending operational challenges.  The perceived primacy in U.S. defense policy is related to its formal tasking in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, as well as the obvious risk posed to U.S. interests and allies in critical regions.  That tasking was made to ensure that two departments—the Navy and Air Force—were officially required to integrate their efforts to achieve necessary cross-domain synergies.  It should not be misinterpreted as simply a reflexive embrace of technology-centric solutions or the reincarnation of dubious ideas like “shock and awe.”


    • ASB is largely relevant to the regional anti-access problem of the often-conflated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenge.  These should be disaggregated.  Anti-access generally covers adversary capabilities to keep us out of their region or country, while area denial strategies seek to accelerate attrition and deny freedom of action within one’s defensive area.  Oversimplified, anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles are A2 threats, while guided rocket attacks on lodgments, chemical shells, and explosively formed projectiles would be examples of AD threats.  While it has conducted a guerrilla campaign against ASB, the ground community has been largely deficient in coming to grips with the other half of the operational challenge—the area denial solution.  In the last two conflicts, it took concerted efforts by a secretary of defense and a major new organization to enhance our maneuver forces while they were taking substantial losses in contact.  That problem has not gone away, but the land power community flails on legacy programs like the Ground Combat Vehicle and the Marine amphibious tractor quest now titled the Amphibious Combat Vehicle.  Rather than snipe at ASB, the ground forces should be clamoring for capabilities they require to overcome AD threats and exploit freedom of maneuver in contested areas. These capabilities will have increased relevance across the spectrum of conflict in the coming years.


    • ASB can be best thought of as an operational concept for force development, including power projection, tactical aviation, ISR, cyber, and defensive technologies.  Many of these capabilities represent technological developments that would be pursued less efficiently and with less success in the absence of a concerted effort by the Pentagon to solve.  ASB also includes the development of capabilities that would be very desirable in support of alternative constructs including Offshore Control (OSC) or in more defensive concepts like the Hedgehog concept, developed by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.


    • There are many capabilities associated with ASB that will be applicable across the conflict spectrum, and there are other capabilities associated with OSC that might be equally useful in both (i.e., attack submarines).  In the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review, the investments needed to overcome the access challenge will have to be balanced against potential investments required to exploit, access, and deny the enemy the ability to successfully counter our freedom of maneuver ashore.  At present, the land power community has not made its own conceptual arguments for how it exploits access and what it requires to degrade or deflect an adversary’s AD capability.  Thus, the Army and Marines will lose out in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review unless the policy community or Congress recognizes more holistic solutions to the larger problem.


    • What is useful in the debate raised by OSC is a better use of history and an understanding of the opponent’s vulnerabilities.  It also posits an alternative method that might help us prioritize investments during the coming era of austerity.  We can’t insist on taking a rich man’s approach to every problem, and investments that contribute to both ASB and OSC—again particularly cyber tools and attack submarines—should be prioritized accordingly.  We need to identify a sustainable competitive advantage, and invest in areas where we might be on the right side of the cost curve.  We’re presently committing a “strategy sin” if we invest in an operational approach that burdens us with investments in areas where the Chinese could obtain parity (or easy low-cost counters) and where we are overspending potential opponents by one or two orders of magnitude.


In sum, we should be pursuing operational concepts like ASB, and exploiting opportunities as ruthlessly as possible.  The A2 challenge is real and must be considered as part of an effort to degrade U.S. influence and access to critical regions.  More indirect methods can also be explored as we test and refine concepts.  We should ensure that our methods generate sustained competitive advantage against complex and advanced A2 threats, not merely perpetuate legacy investments in a new wine bottle.

In this QDR or the National Defense Panel, we should hear more from the Joint community on its efforts to explore solutions to the more likely and growing area denial threat.  Wherever we deploy forces we will encounter the next generation of this insidious problem.  The Joint Operational Access Concept is promising, but one hears little about how urgently or rigorously progress is being pursued.  What’s the status on capability development there?  Overlooking the AD problem, or assuming that ASB will solve this for the Army and Marines, is shortsighted and problematic.  That’s a mistake that the QDR or National Defense Panel need to watch for.  The A2/AD problem is a coin with two heads, and we can lose no matter which side turns up.


F. G. Hoffman is a national security analyst now serving as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks.  These comments are his own and do not reflect the policies of the Department of Defense.